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Hauerwas on Lewis on Pacifism

C. S. Lewis has been the subject of many posts at TCI, and with good reason. He ranks with the best apologists of the 20th century, if not as the best. But he did not write only as an apologist, at least not if we conceive that term narrowly. He did not contend only for distinctively Christian doctrines; he also entered the fray on a number of contentious social issues. One such topic was war. In an earlier post I drew from Lewis’ essay on the subject of pacifism, and I would like to revisit it.

A brief internet search for the Don’s essay will bring up a number of critiques, which should not surprise us given the way Lewis has shaped the last 60 years or so of evangelicalism. However one particular critique comes from a theologian who is himself something of a celebrity, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas. His critique can be found here. Dr. Hauerwas’ essay represents a growing contingent among evangelicals and post-evangelicals known sometimes as “missional” Christians, sometimes as neo-Anabaptists. John Howard Yoder lies below (and sometimes on) the surface of this group’s thinking about violence. Prof. Lewis, in contrast, stands downstream from what TCI has often called classical Protestantism. My purpose in this post is to mount a brief defense of Prof. Lewis’ position. If successful, my hope is that evangelicals might take a second look at the broader tradition he represents.

Dr. Hauerwas’ arguments are varied, and I will not address them exhaustively. However, the ones I will discuss fall into two roughly distinct types: contentions about the meaning of Jesus’ message and the church, and contentions about natural law.

The Character of Jesus’ Life

I take as the first example of the former type Dr. Hauerwas’ comments that:

What Lewis does not consider – an avoidance I fear that touches the heart of not only his understanding of pacifism but of his account of reason and Christianity – is that Christian nonviolence does not derive from any one dominical saying but from the very character of Jesus’s life, death and resurrection.

In the past I have dealt in detail with specific exegetical arguments for pacifism, and I won’t repeat myself on that score. However, I would like to argue that the character of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection should be construed differently that Dr. Hauerwas suggests. These events do not support pacifism as he thinks they do.

Jesus’ work on earth was to establish the kingdom of God. Of course, such a description raises as many questions as it answers. For hearers immediately want to know, what is the kingdom of God like? The name provides part of the answer: whatever it is, it is a sphere wherein God’s will is done. He is the king in this kingdom. But the kingdom is not simply a place; it is also a time. Jesus makes this clear when he says in Luke 16:16 that the kingdom began after John, with Jesus’ own ministry. So in some sense the kingdom of God was the time and place where the Creator was active through Jesus. Yet the Lord also spoke as if the kingdom were still future: he speaks of it as something the saints will inherit at the consummation (e.g., Matt 15:34). This raises the classic problem of “the now and the not yet”, which brings us back to the matter at hand.

What does it look like, when the kingdom is present in the gospels? I hope I will not find disagreement when I suggest the following: it is present when people put their trust in Jesus, when they begin to live in a manner that accords with that faith, when Jesus heals their wounds and ailments, and when he casts out oppressive demons. In all such cases, the common denominator here is the activity of the Spirit in a manner beyond human control. No human being could simply decide to cause these effects on their own, and Jesus teaches this explicitly on a number of occasions: e.g., “without me you can do nothing,” “the Spirit blows where it wishes,” etc. But when the Spirit does come, people are healed internally, and though not in a permanent way like they experience in the eschaton, restored in their bodies and activity.

But what doesn’t change when the kingdom comes in the gospels? Firstly, no holy land is demarcated for this kingdom. In fact, the logic seems to run in the opposite direction. Especially after his death and resurrection, it is clear that the kingdom of God will no longer be located in one geographical territory, but will fan out across the whole globe as God adds disciples to the church. Secondly, sin persists even within the visible church. If it did not, Jesus would have no need to teach his followers how to confess their own sins, nor how to deal with impenitent members of the community. Thirdly, princes and magistrates continue to exist on the earth. Though Jesus is installed as king of kings, he does not nullify civil government. Fourthly, all people, even believers, are still subject to the curse on the ground, and death.

In other words: the kingdom comes fundamentally into the hearts of believers, and expresses itself through Spirit-wrought works and wonders, but does not perfectly eliminate the presence of sin and its effects on the body and society. The rule of God is not perfectly expressed in the visible church. The church has no place of its own, no holy land, and so cannot be a kingdom in the strict sense; its people are still sojourners from God’s presence, and have no territory to call their own as Christians per se. Further, sin still lives in them, and mortality still clings to their flesh. The rule of God expressed in perfect holiness and immortality still eludes them. And for these reasons, the kingdom does not obviate the need for authorities, and even for communal self-preservation in the face of threatening members.

And so Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection do not really have the character of pacifism; what they have is the shape of the kingdom, which operates in a way different than the neo-Anabaptist vision suggests.

The Novelty of Jesus’ Message

A second example of the Jesus-focused type of objection to Lewis’ paper appears when Dr. Hauerwas writes:

Accordingly, Jesus’s authority is not expressed only in his teachings or his spiritual depth, but in “the way he went about representing a new moral option in Palestine, at the cost of his death.” Christians are nonviolent not, therefore, because we believe that nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but because nonviolence is constitutive of what it means to be a disciple to Jesus.

To reiterate: Jesus’ authority is said to be expressed in the “new moral option” he represented. But in what sense did Jesus claim to be presenting a new option in his teaching and example? At the beginning and end of his programmatic Sermon on the Mount, Jesus draws a line of continuity between the Law and the Prophets and his own moral teaching; the Lord was not in fact giving a “new and better” law than he did before his incarnation. It is true that Jesus went beyond the expectations of his contemporaries: in the same sermon he warns his listeners that they must do better than the Pharisees if they are to be subjects of God’s kingdom. But note, this makes Jesus’ teaching new relative to the teachings of the Pharisees, not God’s revelation in nature or in the Old Testament. There are, no doubt, some changes in the shift from Old to New covenant. But in fact they all seem to be in the direction of simplification: a reduction in divine positive laws, and a return to something closer to the created order. Yet not quite: as noted before, the kingdom has not eliminated the presence of sin and death already, and the community of Jesus’ disciples must reckon with this. These realities persisting, the age of the church is still more like the age of Noah and Moses than it is the Garden of Eden or the age to come.

The Relevance of Natural Law

Dr. Hauerwas later expresses concern about Prof. Lewis’ relation of Christianity to natural law:

Lewis, as is clear from his appeal to common sense, assumes a strong identification between what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a human being.

Throughout his work Lewis emphasized the difference being a Christian makes for what it means to believe in God, but how he understood that difference did not shape his thinking about war. I think he failed to draw out the implications of his theological convictions for war because of his conviction that a natural law ethic was sufficient to account for how we should think about war.

Lewis’s flatfooted interpretation of “resist not evil” nicely illustrates his inability to recognize the difference Christ makes for the transformation of our “reason.”

A little later he contends:

The problem is not in his account of the three elements of reason, but rather in his failure to see how reason and conscience must be transformed by the virtues. Such a view seems odd given his claim that though every moral judgment involves facts, intuitions, and reasoning, regard for authority commensurate with the virtue of humility is also required. That seems exactly right, but then I cannot help but wonder why Lewis does not include the lives of the martyrs as authorities for the shaping of Christian practical reason.

In “Learning in War-Time,” Lewis observes that before he became a Christian he did not realize his life after conversion would consist in doing most of the same things he had done prior to his conversion. He notes that he hopes he is doing the same things in a new spirit, but they are still the same things. There is wisdom in what he says because we rightly believe that what it means to be a Christian is what God has created all to be. Therefore there is some continuity between the natural moral virtues and the theological virtues, but Lewis is wrong to think what he is doing is “the same thing.” It cannot be the same thing because what he “does” is part of a different narrative.

The flaw in Prof. Lewis’ account, then, is that he separates practical reason from the character formation of the reasoner, and in turn severs this shaping from the distinctively Christian story. But in reality what people take to be “reasonable” will be moulded by their habits which form and are formed by their actions. And people act in light of the narratives they tell themselves, so that what they take to be ethically reasonable will flow from these more fundamental stories. Dr. Hauerwas sees that Prof. Lewis regarded facts, intuitions, reasoning, and authorities as relevant to why people judge the way they do, but thinks he failed to draw the correct conclusion on this subject because he failed to take the right facts and authorities–the specifically Christian ones, like the martyrs–into account.

The appropriate rejoinder to Dr. Hauerwas follows from all that I have said above. In fact, the gospels (the Christian “narratives” if you will) present a story of a redeemer coming to restore his created order, though not all at once. Rather, he does it in stages, such that God transforms the heart, and increasingly the character, now, but leaves sin in the heart, the community, and the world until the consummation. The community of the church, then, is not a zone of perfect sinless separation from the world; rather, it must deal with the same practical problems the world does through its courts and governments. Christianity claims to be the truth, and so followers of Jesus must reason in light of what Jesus did and taught because right reason submits to the truth. Yet it does matter what Jesus in fact did and taught. It is only if Jesus demanded pacifist practice that a “Christian reason” (a potentially misleading phrase, but we will go with it for the sake of argument) will necessarily shape habits and therefore actions in this direction.

Dr. Hauerwas raises the question of martyrs as authorities. What can be said about them? Well, consider this: if the gracious work of Christ has come to redeem nature, then it comes to uphold justice, since nature includes justice within it as it comes from the hand of God. But natural justice, when faced with violent injustice, includes justice in war. And a just war can only be waged if there is a reasonable prospect of success. Otherwise people are not seeking a justly ordered peace, but rather only their own deaths and those of others for no good effect. Yet the martyrs of the first through third centuries had no authority to wage war, nor did they have any reasonable prospect of success even if they did. If they had fought, then, they would have fallen foul of justice, and so nature, and thus would have opposed the character of Christ’s grace. The behaviour of the martyrs, in other words, makes sense even on classical Protestant grounds, apart from pacifistic premises. Dr. Hauerwas might reply that most of these historical martyrs were actually pacifists in their own understanding, and he is probably right. But at this point the Protestant will reply: while admirable, the martyrs do not carry the authority of Jesus in the way that he or his apostles did. There was no promise to the martyrs that their teaching about doctrine and ethics would remain infallible. Rather, they are fallible defendants who must meet us at the same infallible judgment seat: the holy scriptures.

The Necessity of Force

Finally, Dr. Hauerwas questions whether Prof. Lewis’ natural law reasoning is sound:

Nor do pacifists have reason to disagree with Lewis’s concern that the innocent be protected from homicidal maniacs. But there are nonviolent alternatives to protect innocent people from unjust attack. It is, moreover, quite a logical leap from using force to stop a homicidal maniac to justifying war. At best, Lewis has given a justification for the police function of governing authorities. But war is essentially a different reality than the largely peaceable work of the police.

At this point I could bring up ethical scenarios from imagination or history that might contradict this argument. If I could present even one such case where protecting the innocent would require violence, Dr. Hauerwas’ argument would fail. That’s because his point here seems to be violence is never practically necessary. There are always practically workable non-violent alternatives, he contends. But I am going to assume my readers are capable of coming up with such scenarios themselves. What I will note is a false assumption that often feeds into this pacifist counter, the idea that all people ultimately have a good will. That is, some pacifism assumes that all violent individuals can ultimately be reasoned with, and therefore that force is never really necessary. But this is simply not true, or at least we have no evidence to think it is. Violent sociopaths are people who violate this stricture: they are aware they hurt people, and that what they are doing is wrong, but they do it anyway. And scripture testifies that our experience is correct, that such rebellious people do exist. Those who have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit fall into this category, sinning as they do against the light. In the Old Testament, too, there was a known category of “high-handed” sins, which were defined by their wilfulness. So in fact there is no good reason to assume we can always talk violent people out of their behaviour, and that deep down they are all just folk like us. Sometimes they are not.

Dr. Hauerwas also contends that even if necessity could justify police violence, it would not follow that war was justified. He says these are not two realities on a continuum, but that they are qualitatively (“essentially”) different. But, to borrow a phrase from Prof. Lewis, this will not answer. The logic of just war is the logic that underlies all political judgment: an authority effectively and proportionately discriminating between the right and the wrong, and establishing the former in the social order. The reality of war is that unintended injustice can be caused as a side-effect, but this is also true of police work. Collateral damage can occur in both military and police action. In fact the difference between the two kinds of judgments is this: military force works outside normal positive law constraints (since it expresses a conflict between two political communities), and happens on a larger scale. But both judgments are ultimately required by natural justice, which we perceive when we consider cases like the homicidal maniacs Dr. Hauerwas mentions.

Much more could be said about Dr. Hauerwas, Prof. Lewis, and their discussion about pacifism, but this will have to suffice for the present. Hopefully, though, the reader can see how Prof. Lewis’ broad perspective, supplemented with some further exegetical and philosophical defense, remains a live option today for Christians thinking about the ethics of war.


3 replies on “Hauerwas on Lewis on Pacifism”

Suppose I offer this syllogism in favour of Christian non-violence:

(1) The Kingdom of God will never be spread by acts of violence (Peter cutting off that one guy’s ear, for example).

(2) Christians are to be ‘builders’ for the Kingdom in everything they do- doing everything to the glory of God.

(3) Therefore, violence is not justifiable for the Christian.

I would disagree firstly with (1). In Romans 13, Paul describes magistrates as instruments of God’s reign.

Now, I would agree that certain effects of God’s will do not come about by acts of violence. For example, the regeneration of the heart is an expression of God’s rule which cannot be caused by force. Further, the eschaton is something God has told us will not be brought in through the instrumentality of human violence.

But that does not rule out God’s will being accomplished by violence in other kinds of cases, like those described in Romans 13.

I agree it doesn’t rule anything out – but I do think it makes it a bit harder to argue for. Just after the ‘government passages’, Paul goes on to say how love, being the fullfillment of the Law, doesn’t harm a neighbor (surely we can’t rule out the importance of those verses for this topic) – I get the distinct feeling that the government/magistrate passages exist more to show how government of some kind is necessary to prevent humanity from further falling into disorder, and not so much an endorsement of violent means to accomplish God’s will.

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